Hamlet’s Universe Part 5 of 9
Our next line of inquiry concerns who were the key players in the New Astronomy the author ‘Shakespeare’ appears to have knowledge of.
First, would be Ptolemy, the champion of the earth-centered model of the universe for some 1400 years. There were of course many others that contributed to various models, and Professor Usher goes into more background on this, but I’m going to only focus on what I think are the key actors in this drama. Ptolemy’s complete name was Claudius Ptolemy and part of Prof. Usher’s theory is that the names, or characters, of the key players are represented in Hamlet. Ptolemy, fittingly, is represented in Hamlet by King Claudius, who is the allegorical representative of the geocentric model.
Second, is Copernicus, who was born in Poland in 1473. Copernicus, along with Thomas Digges, together are represented by the character of Hamlet who himself represents the New Astronomy of the sun-centered model. A student from Wittenberg named Georg Joachim, but who called himself Rheticus, visited Copernicus and studied with him for two years. He then returned to Wittenberg and established there the first school of heliocentric planetary astronomy. This is to explain why Wittenberg has such a prominent place in the play. Another interesting point is that the person that got Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus into print, Andreas Osiander, was so concerned about its implications, for his safety as well as Copernicus and others, that he prefaced the publication with a note explaining the new book shouldn’t be taken literally, but only used for algorithmic calculations. (Thomas Digges later saw through this ‘ruse’).
Third, is Tycho Brahe, of Denmark. Tycho (pronounced “Tee-ko”) had attended for a short time the University of Wittenberg but returned home due to the plague. He was granted the island of Ven (Hven) by the Danish King Frederick II. And while Tycho built his observatory at Ven, the king built Kronborg castle at Helsingor (the Elsinore castle in Hamlet http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Elsinore_Castle ). He developed his own competing model of the cosmos that was a bounded geo-heliocentric hybrid. By ‘bounded’ is meant that Tycho didn’t accept an ‘infinite’ universe but one that still had a ‘shell’ of stars at its outer boundary. A couple other key things to remember about Tycho Brahe, besides his Supernova of 1572, is that 1) Tycho sent four copies of an engraving of his portrait to England, along with a book of his, to Thomas Savile. He also sent his regards to multi-talented John Dee and the mathematician and astronomer Sir Thomas Digges. Around Tycho’s portrait were represented the escutcheons of Tycho’s sixteen great, great, grandparents. Of these, one was named Rosencrantz and the other Guildenstern. Professor Usher, and others, make the plausible case that it is from this portrait that Shakespeare obtained the names for two of his characters in Hamlet. Here is a link to this picture:
You can see Guildenstern in the lower left and then four names up is Rosencrantz. Since there were four copies of this portrait and they were meant people like Dee, Digges, and those involved with the New Astronomy, it’s not hard to imagine that one of them found its way to whomever wrote Hamlet. Prof. Usher sees Rosencrantz and Guildenstern as together representing Tycho’s hybrid model of the cosmos. One other thing to keep in mind is that Tycho studied the heavens with his naked eye and did not use a telescope. You’ll notice also in the portrait that his hands appear to be switched, as if cut off and transplanted to the opposite arm. Prof. Usher thinks this could explain Shakespeare’s term of ‘handsaw’ as a reference to Tycho’s naked eye observations. They contrast with the term ‘hawk’ which suggests telescopic vision.
HAMLET: I am but mad north-north-west. When the wind is southerly, I know a hawk from a handsaw. (2.2.377-278)
(You’ll need to read the book for additional insights and explanations!)
Fourth, is Galileo http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galileo_Galilei who, as you can read, “played a major role in the Scientific Revolution”. You’ll see that he is credited with the discovery of the phases of Venus, the moons of Jupiter, observations of sunspots. Any contemporary astronomer serious in this endeavor would have to be aware of Galileo’s work. Remember that Galileo was convicted of heresy by the church and perhaps was lucky to escape with his life. Other intellectuals, such as Giordano Bruno were burned at the state for such offenses. Galileo once hid his findings in the phrase “Cynthiae figuras aemulatur amorum” which translates to (“the mother of love [Venus] emulates figures [phases] of Cynthia [the moon]”). The purpose of him doing this was “to establish priority for his discovery of the phases”. And this is something he wouldn’t have done if it was known that the phases of Venus had already been discovered and announced.
Fifth, as mentioned in my first post, is Leonard Digges. He was born in 1520 and thought to have died in either 1559 (according to Wikipedia) or around 1572 (according to Usher’s book). As mentioned previously, Prof. Usher thinks this could have been a ruse to allow Digges to go into hiding. While known for being an excellent mathematician and surveyor, he also has been credited with inventing the reflecting telescope. Since there appear to be a number of astronomical discoveries alluded to in Hamlet and other Shakespeare plays, Prof. Usher believes that Leonard and/or son Thomas used their telescopes for making the observations that were ‘announced’ by Shakespeare. In the play, Leonard is represented by the ‘Ghost’ of the elder Hamlet.
Sixth, then, is Thomas Digges, who as young Hamlet, champions the model of an ‘unbounded’ sun-centered universe with stars scattered throughout an infinite space. See again his illustration here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Digges
Leonard didn’t think much of England’s university system at the time, as they would not give serious consideration to the sun-centered system until 1619 when a professorship was established for it at Oxford. So Leonard arranged to have Thomas be tutored by John Dee. A key thing to keep in mind is that even Thomas, like Galileo and others, was worried of how his ideas would be received if known by the authorities. He knew that Copernicus’ De Revolutionibus actually was meant to be taken literally. So he, too, didn’t publish his ideas and research very openly, but rather alluded to them only in his father’s almanac. This same concern with one’s safety in promoting the New Astronomy is believed by Prof. Usher as to why ‘Shakespeare’ used allegory to announce many new discoveries as well as to compare the various cosmological models rather than to openly question the legitimacy of the geo-centralized system with its connection to the Church and to kings as God’s representatives.
Seventh, now is Thomas Harriot or Hariot, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thomas_Harriot
In Hamlet he is represented by Laertes. Prof. Usher says that Shakespeare honored Harriot like Digges because Harriot had opened up the geographic horizons as Digges did the cosmological horizons. Harriot accompanied Sir Walter Raleigh in an attempt to colonize the North American continent, ending up at an island now part of North Carolina. But Harriot was also a mathematician like Digges and developed a refracting telescope like Galileo’s to make the first known drawing of the Moon. He also discovered sunspots and the rotation period of the sun. Prof. Usher believes that Shakespeare described about two dozen characteristics of Laertes that can all be connected to Harriot. For one, Shakespeare has Osric saying words very similar to those written by Harriot from his voyage to North America as described in a report of his voyage. For just one example, it’s explained how Hamlet’s and Osric’s “it is very hot” and “tis very cold” are taken from Harriot’s comparison of the climates of Virginia and England.
Harriot’s companion Raleigh is the eighth person I’m mentioning that Usher identifies in Hamlet, this time represented by Osric. His characteristics as described by Shakespeare can also be connected with Raleigh.
Finally, the ninth and last person in this special group is Sir Henry Percy, the ‘wizard’ 9th Earl of Northumberland. Percy had the wealth to be a patron to Harriot and other experimenters who shared his interest in science. Prof. Usher doesn’t clearly identify a counterpart for him in the play but he does show how several references seem to point to him in a role of patronage.
There are several other characters in the play that Prof. Ushers suggest may be representations of real persons which he takes a stab at, but the above are the important ones for my purpose. Again, I’ve only touched on a little on how these individuals fit into Shakespeare’s allegory of the beginnings of the New Astronomy. In fact, if he’s mostly right in his analysis, and I think he is even though there may be some lesser sub-texts also in Hamlet, then one can’t really understand the Cosmological sub-text story within the play unless one first clearly understands the astronomy and history in his two books.